Sunday, April 19, 2015

Thoughts On The Randal Rauser/Justin Schieber Debate

So the debate between Randal Rauser and Justin Schieber from last month is online and having just watched it I thought I'd weigh in. Randal Rauser is a trained theologian and Christian apologist. What I like about him is that he isn't just another William Lane Craig clone, of which there are far too many. He makes his own arguments for god his own way and I always want to see the real reasons why theists believe what they do. Here, Randal offers a few of the arguments that help convince him god is real. I'll offer some thoughts on why I don't find them convincing.

First, Randal defines god as a "necessarily existent, non-physical agent, who is omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good." This is the basic god of classical theism which I think was a good idea for Randal to define upfront so there's no confusion. The only problem I have of course is the "necessarily existent" part. I know that many classical theists view god as necessarily existent, but there is often an attempt to define god into existence this way that I think is little more than wordplay. Thankfully, Randal does not try to make that argument for god in this debate.

Randal outlines his three main arguments:

  1. Rational belief in god doesn't require evidence
  2. God is a legitimate philosophical explanation
  3. God best accounts for the cognitive faculty of moral intuition

Let's go over them one by one.

1. Rational belief in god doesn't require evidence

Randal first defends the idea that rational belief in god doesn't require evidence. He tries to argue that it is properly basic, much like the belief in an external world. "One need not have evidence for god to believe rationally that god exists," Randal declares. He later says, "Belief in god can be produced in conditions which qualify it as properly basic." He tells the story about a non-religious Canadian rock musician who walked into a church in New York one day and was "struck by overwhelming spiritual presence." But so what? As Randal himself observes, "Millions of people have formed belief about god with the same naturalness and immediacy, the same phenomenology of self-presentation that [the Canadian rock musician] experienced." In other words, millions of people have formed belief in other gods as well as non-gods as a result of spiritual experience. There is no special power Christianity has in the spiritual domain. 

Randal could have used an Islamic example, or a Hindu one, or a Mormon one, but of course he uses a Christian one to try and make it seem as if Christianity has a special strong hold on spiritual experiences. It doesn't, and I think Randal even knows this. Heck even I once had a few spiritual experiences and neither of them took place in a Christian setting. The fact that these kinds of experiences happen in all religious settings as well as in secular environments indicates there is something natural about them, and that it's in the context in which they happen that tricks people into believing there is something special and unique about them.

Now nowhere in his speech did Randal try to connect this to a Christian deity. He instead tried to appeal to a general god under which many different kinds of theists can believe in. To be fair, the debate wasn't about a Christian god, but a general classical theistic god. However, the spiritual experiences had by many, including me, can be had in belief systems that do not contain classically theistic gods, like Hinduism and Buddhism. There is no criterion that Randal offers that constrains this belief in god against belief in any other things and so I think it's special pleading to claim that it's properly basic. As such, it comes perilously close to presuppositionalism.

In addition to this, we have evidence that can explain these senses better in the fields of psychology and neuroscience. The hyperactive agency detection device, or HADD, is the product of our evolutionary past, which made us more likely to have Type I errors. Type I errors happen when we believe something is real when it is not, like when we hear a rustle in the bushes and think it is a predator that might kill us, but turns out to just be the wind. Our sense of unseen agents has a perfectly natural explanation to them. Now spiritual experiences are not the same exact thing as our HADD, but they are related. They don't always involve an unseen agent. When I had my two spiritual experiences I felt an amazing sense of calm and relaxation and goodness. These are neuro-chemical states that can easily be reproduced with drugs like ecstasy. It's all in the body, and more specifically, the brain. They don't count as properly basic beliefs about god anymore than they do about monsters. Now on his website, Randal says that properly basic beliefs are justified "absent defeaters". I agree. As per the reasons above, I think we have defeaters in the belief that there is this god-sense. Bottom line: this is not evidence.

2. God is a legitimate philosophical explanation

Some atheists think that god is not a legitimate philosophical explanation and Randal argues that the discredited "God of the gaps" trick used by so many creationists has been turned into a zeitgeist whereby all theistic explanation are treated in the same manner.  He quotes the atheistic philosopher Thomas Nagel in a passage that he interprets as ruling out theistic explanations a priori, and declares this line of reasoning "simply wrong." 

Randal points to two aspects of god that show why Nagel's view is wrong. God is a transcendent explanation and has agent causation. One the first point, by positing "an ontological reality independent of this world," which Randal includes in his definition of transcendent causes, he argues that god as an explanation is no more different than abstract objects, objective moral facts, or nominalist theories of possible worlds. Randal says that rejecting transcendent causes would make Nagel come perilously close to rejecting philosophy altogether.

I disagree. First, abstract objects have no causal powers. Numbers, forms, and facts are not powers that cause things to happen. God is simply in a different category. Also, the nominalist need not accept the ontological status of any of these things. What many atheists, including myself, have a problem with god as an explanation with is that god is simply ill-defined and often incoherent. This is especially true of the god of classical theism of which Randal believes in. Additionally, Greg Dawes has written an excellent book called Theism and Explanation which outlines the problems that theistic explanations have. He writes that when "measured against a list of accepted explanatory virtues, a theistic hypothesis is simply incapable of achieving a high score. It is not (as things stand) consistent with the rest of our knowledge, it comes from a tradition whose proposed explanations have previously scored poorly, it is ontologically extravagant, and it does not enable us to predict the precise details of the effect. It other words, it lacks many of the qualities we would normally demand of successful explanations." (8.1) While Dawes doesn't exclude theistic explanations as a matter of principle, he concludes they score very low on standards "which are no more onerous than those we demand of other explanations." This means that if a theist thinks god is a good explanation for something, he is probably going to engage in some special pleading.

Regarding agency, Randal mentions objections to the idea of personal transcendence. He uses an example of a light going on in another room and how it is reasonable to assume that someone turned it on. But this would be a non-transcendent agent cause, which is totally different, and much more justified than a transcendent agent causation. We have plenty of knowledge that non-transcendent agents exist and cause things to happen, and zero for transcendent agents. We also have natural explanations for why we believe in unseen agents, like the aforementioned HADD. Given this, the atheist sees no good evidence to believe in transcendent agents, and need not rule them out a priori. So Randal here is arguing against Nagel's view of the outright dismissal of god as an explanation in principle. "In conclusion, god is a philosophically serious and legitimate explanatory concept," Randal says. But one could accept god as an explanation in principle, and yet still think that god isn't a good explanation. Just because god could be an explanation, doesn't mean it is a good one.

3. God best accounts for the cognitive faculty of moral intuition

Randal reads from the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy to give an example of moral intuition. Tolstoy witnesses a beheading and is disgusted by the act. Randal argues that this moral intuition is a properly basic belief and needs no reason or evidence to justify it. We can tune into moral intuition in the same way that a radio can tune into the frequencies in the AM and FM ranges, Randal says. "But where do we get this moral radio?" he asks. "What process equipped us with such an extraordinary faculty, an insight in such a non-physical moral realm?" Naturalistic Darwinism cannot explain for these faculties, Randal argues, and quotes from Bertrand Russell expounding on the problem. I think it's a bit misleading to quote from Russell, considering how most of his writings on religion are at least 50 years old, and some of them are almost a hundred years old. Naturalistic philosophers have made much progress in these fields since his time.

Our moral intuition, that most, but not all of us have, are the product of Darwinian evolution. We are social primates, and all social animals have a set of behavioral traits that enable that species best to survive. For most of our existence we lived not alone, but in relatively small tribes. This meant that the survival of the tribe was important, perhaps more important than the survival of any one individual. We evolved a kind of collectivism, as opposed to an individualism. It was in our personal best interests that others in our group were well off, because we relied on them for our own well being. It's not hard to imagine why things like caring for others and altruism developed out of this social cohesion. The evolution of morality is understood as having its origins in primate sociality, and one can read about the works of Frans de Waal as well as use Wikipedia to see how naturalism can account for this. One can also argue that it isn't in our moral intuition to help others outside of our in-group. History is littered with examples of racism, prejudice, bigotry, xenophobia, and indifference towards other groups of people who are not like us, and we had to struggle for many, many centuries to overcome this. So Randal's example of a heroic act of the doctor risking their life to save people with Ebola might not be as intuitive as he imagines it to be, but might be the product of cultural conditioning.

Randal is wrong when he quotes Richard Rorty saying, "the idea that one species of organism is unlike all the others oriented not just towards its own in-created prosperity, but towards truth, is as un-Darwinian as the idea that every human being has a built-in moral compass, a conscious that swings free of both social history and individual luck." Humans are not the only species oriented towards "truth." If you define truth as beliefs that are related at what's real, then many species are capable of truth. There is no way any advanced predator could hunt prey properly if it didn't have some cognitive capacity towards truth. Beliefs required for survival don't mean they are true, but that doesn't mean they aren't either. There is no dichotomy here.

"Thus, if we intuit moral facts about the world because god designed us to do so on the desire that we have moral knowledge," Randal says. "Just as a person provides the best explanation for the light switching on in the room, so a person provides the best explanation of that moral light of conscience by which we grasp moral facts." But how did god do this? Did he breathe into us moral knowledge supernaturally, or did he use evolution to install this moral compass? If the latter, than having a moral compass supplied via evolution doesn't require a god, and makes him redundant. If the former, when did this happen in our evolution? Were we savages one day, and suddenly made into moral beings at one single moment? How does this make sense with evolution? And how is this not the very definition of a just-so story? It seems to me that naturalism can account for our moral intuitions and any theistic explanation is redundant at best.

Randal then mentions god as the best explanation for moral value. Apparently, he is not fully read on the Euthyphro Dilemma, but he throws this out there for good measure. He then says god best explains moral obligation, but makes no argument that moral obligations exist. I don't find any of the moral arguments for god plausible and I think most of them rely on ignorance. For most of human history, there was no account of our moral nature and god supplied an easy explanation. And I think that if theists did some research the answer to their questions can be known via the knowledge of science and philosophy.

In conclusion

Randal has made three unconvincing arguments for the existence of god. Of course he has dozens of others which he has made in his books and on his blog, but many of them are just as unconvincing as the ones he's presented here. One of the reasons I'm an atheist is because theists have failed to make any good convincing arguments for god, and they've failed to address the problems with theism. One of the purposes the debate for Randal was to point towards the rationality of god belief. I can certainly see why some people might think that god is the best explanation for something. However, I think that in many of the areas where god is used as an explanation for something, a little research into them will reveal that god is not the best explanation, and that a natural one is better. Also, I fear that believing that god is the best explanation for something will have the negative effect of discouraging research into natural explanations. If "God did it" stops you from looking for natural explanations then theism is the enemy of science and intellectual progress.

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